Music / Ruf Usher Hall

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There are two ways of looking at the performance of Emanuel Nunes's Ruf, given last Thursday by the BBC Scottish SO under Emilio Pomarico. If your views on contemporary music were formed in the 1960s or 1970s, and you believe that post-war modernism was and is the last word, then this was the highly significant UK premiere of a crucial work by a quintessential modern master.

If, on the other hand, you feel that now, in the late 1990s, things have moved on, and rejoice in the re-appearance of "traditional" elements, such as tonality and melody, albeit in post-modern guise, then you will probably have felt that this event was yet another demonstration of just how out of touch the rarefied world of the "academic avant-garde" is.

A pupil of Boulez and Stockhausen, Nunes is a highly skilful exponent of the kind of "international" style of new music that features at specialist festivals worldwide, but seems increasingly at odds with a music scene in which figures like Adams and Reich, Part, Tavener or MacMillan loom large. Diehard new-music enthusiasts and festival organisers will obviously see things otherwise, but the Edinburgh audience voted with its feet: the prestige of last year's prizewinning Quodlibet did not suffice to fill even one eighth of the Usher Hall for Ruf.

Those who did come experienced a 40-minute piece in which the usual torrents of notes, arranged in a highly dissonant and arbitrarily chromatic manner, with a certain agonised intensity of effect, were interspersed with moments of respite; at these points, especially during one passage of harmonics and bell-sounds, and another near the end where we heard fragmentary quotations from Mahler's Song of the Earth, the effect was bleakly atmospheric. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the tape sounds, mixed by the composer in person, which featured a particularly annoying car-alarm effect - not one that any composer would choose nowadays, I presume. But then, Ruf is a product of the 1970s, when not only was the "avant-garde" all- powerful, but car alarms had not been invented.

The BBC Scottish SO sailed through all the complexities of this piece with ease, under the assured guidance of Pomarico; this intense "cry of despair" (Ruf means "shout") could hardly have had a more convincing performance, I imagine. Whether anyone is really listening is another matter.